Exams Amid COVID: Are Law Schools Turning a Blind Eye to Students?
Indian law schools don’t have a uniform governing framework, with each making their own administrative decisions.
Despite the second wave of COVID-19 ravaging India, the country’s top law schools remain detached from reality in an absurd display of normalcy, proceeding with the conduct of examinations despite repeated protests by students.
On 29 April, my batchmate lost his mother to COVID-19. On 30 April, he wrote his examination for Constitutional law as a COVID-19 patient and an orphan.
Writing six five-hour long examinations over two weeks ensured that he could not see his mom when she struggled for life, and preparations for the next ensured he could not even mourn her when she was gone.
This is not an exceptional instance from National Law University, Lucknow. Law schools across India are conducting examinations unmoved by the ferocity of the unrelenting second wave.
- Some students have lost their loved ones, others are forced to scavenge for beds and oxygen.
- Some others are themselves infected with COVID. And amidst unprecedented chaos that has brought the entire country to its knees, law schools continue to function like everything is normal even as the world around them collapses.
All Exams at Once
In a survey of 25 law schools, responses were received from students of 17 National Law Universities (NLUs), 3 non-NLU government law schools, and 5 private law schools. The survey focussed on the second wave’s impact on the examinations organised or scheduled between April and June, 2021. This period was selected since an exponential rise in COVID cases was recorded in April, and is expected to last until June.
Each respondent indicated that their university had either organised, or scheduled an examination between April and June. Prima facie, the catastrophic second wave is seemingly not sufficient for universities to consider postponing or cancelling exams.
The above chart also considers Internal Assessments (project submissions, presentations, vivas) as examinations. If solely written submissions are considered as examinations, 21 of the 25 universities had notified a written examination – either exclusively or in addition to an internal assessment. Only four universities did not have a written examination in the period.
- Responses show that students mostly approve of Internal Assessments compared to written examinations, as the latter are stressful, carry higher marks and require more time. Therefore, the remaining data analysis is confined to the 21 law schools conducting written examinations.
- An astonishing 17 of these 21 law schools are conducting both written examinations and Internal Assessments, from April-June. Students from 7 of these law schools are the most impacted – being required to write mid-semester exams, end-semester exams and sit for the Internal Assessments.
Protests Erupt at Law Campuses
University administrations often turn a blind eye to students’ demands. Such attitudes only aggravate in a remote environment, where the difficulty of gathering consensus among students is supplemented by their inability to present a convincing stand before the administration.
Physical protests and gatherings that invite media coverage are inevitably replaced by silent emails, which are either met with cold replies or not acknowledged.
But despite these communication challenges, students have been united in protesting the administration’s apathy and unreasonable attitude of conducting examinations amidst a deadly pandemic.
15 of the 21 law schools registered an unfavourable response from the students (71%).
This refers to a full-scale protest, boycott of the examinations or representations made before university administrations. 80% private law schools and 69% government law schools registered such responses.
- A major protest was witnessed at NLU Jodhpur. After a 4th year student lost his life battling COVID, heart-wrenching details emerged about the administration’s insensitivity. The student, despite being on ventilator, had asked his classmates to log into his account, as the university refused to relax the attendance criteria.
- Aggrieved students of Institute of Law, Nirma University (ILNU) filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Gujarat High Court, seeking cancellation or deference of examinations. The matter has not yet been listed as on the date of writing this article.
- Further, students boycotted two viva examinations, post which certain relaxations in Internal Assessments were provided. However, ILNU remains adamant about conducting the written examination without relaxations.
- Another major protest is undergoing at Symbiosis Law School, Noida, where students are requesting postponement of examinations. Despite Dr Shashi Tharoor’s request on social media to consider relaxations for students, the administration refuses to budge.
This LinkedIn thread by a student at SLS Noida, reproduced with permission, states that the proctored examination shall be accompanied by an Artificial Intelligence system that shall flag any aberration, including bathroom breaks being disallowed.
“I will be susceptible to disqualification if the proctor’s companion: the “AI” detects another face in the room; I also have no idea if the AI might mistake my mom’s cough, or my dad’s call for a disingenuous whisper trying to help me with the objectives. … Confusingly enough, this decision enjoys no support, and yet it leeches off of the students’ mental, and physical health to fatten itself, a monster born of a ridiculously lopsided social contract, and non-existent stakeholder representation.”Student at SLS Noida
The three examples above are only a tip of the iceberg. Social media is teeming with requests from students imploring their universities to postpone examinations at least until there's a modicum of normalcy.
Tokenism in the Name of Relaxation?
Both ILNU Ahmedabad and SLS Noida have not provided respite to students. In contrast, mounting media pressure finally got NLU Jodhpur to suspend their classes and change the format of the end-semester examinations.
Of the 15 law schools that registered a protest, relaxations were provided in 8. However, in most of the cases, such relaxations were inadequate and insufficient. For example, SLS Hyderabad provided an extension of 10 days for Internal Assessment, but refused any relief for written examinations.
The remaining 7 law schools refused to provide any reasonable relaxation, despite repeated demands. Examples include the Army Institute of Law, Mohali and NLU Jabalpur, where the administration refused to take action despite representations.
Some institutes, such as NLU Lucknow, have allowed students who miss the examinations to attempt them again in an offline format once the University reopens. The problem with such an approach is that it does not consider the vast difference between an online and offline educational set-up. Characteristics of online classes such as low attendance, diminished teacher-student interactions and inefficient dissemination of knowledge lead to an unintended disparity between students who attempt the same examination offline and online, privileging the latter.
It is therefore, latently discriminatory to state that allowing students an offline re-examination amounts to equal opportunity.
Leading by Example
Not all is lost though, with some universities shining as a beacon of hope amidst the darkness of apathy.
NLU Delhi conducted a dialogue that ended with a mutual agreement between the students and administration about the format of exams. NLU Odisha eased the examination process into a student-friendly mode. Amity Law School, Lucknow allowed students to take examinations later.
NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad conducted multiple stakeholder meetings after protests, where additional relaxations were provided.
However, these reliefs are far and few. They emanate not from recognising students’ rights but from understanding students’ needs. This is problematic, since not every university is as sympathetic to students.
Will The Bar Council of India Step In?
Unless an academically conducive environment is legally recognised as a prerequisite to learning and assessment, the final decision shall remain in the hands of apathetic administrations, whose only concern is to stick to an academic calendar rather than constructive pedagogy.
These above statistics and examples overlook the impact on mental health, at a time when the reality feels dystopian as we lose our loved ones to COVID-19.
With family becoming the first and last support system, it is inconceivable that universities would subject students to exhausting examinations when they need to be with their families. These irrational decisions only aggravate the agony of adolescent minds, who are being forced to choose between their health, family or career in a do-or-die situation.
Indian law schools do not have a uniform governing framework, with each university making autonomous administrative decisions. However, their policies are subject to directions from the Bar Council of India, which is the regulatory body for legal education.
While the BCI has been silent throughout 2021, there can be no later time to break its nonchalance. The BCI must step up to protect the legitimate interest of thousands of law students amidst this humanitarian crisis, who are asking for nothing more than respite and empathy from their places of learning.
Update: National Law University, Lucknow vide its notification dated 22 May has modified its earlier decision and allowed students who missed examinations, more opportunities to attempt them in the coming months, in the same online format. The author regrets any inconvenience caused.
(The author is a student of law at National Law University, Lucknow. He writes on human rights, policy and Constitutional law. He tweets at @VanajVidyan, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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